donderdag 11 september 2008

An internal exile reads MacIntyre's After Virtue

I've politically described myself as a 'conservative anarchist', which does not make much sense, but makes more sense than just about anything else. I don't feel much at home with left-wing anarchism because it remains focused on direct democracy, egalitarianism, etc. - replicating the utopia of Marxism. And I'm not sure anymore whether democracy is the superior system it is so often thought to be. Or whether people are really equal. I don't feel at home with most right-wing individualist versions of anarchism either. Or libertarianism, or paleoconservatism. Because of the uncritical attitude towards capitalist rapacity, and the notion of the individual and its liberties as the atomic cornerstone of society. I remain too much of an ex-Marxist not to acknowledge that even if individuals may transcend society, they are at the same time constituted by society, social traditions, norms and ideologies. Then there's the national-anarchists, who are right in both rejecting capitalism and recognizing that people are unlikely to voluntarily enter an egalitarian, communist brotherhood of man. It's just that the Neo-Nazistic roots, including blood-and-soil mysticism and antisemitism, are sometimes still showing.

I'm also far from juvenile slogans about "No God, No Master!" There is a God, and there will be masters, too - some perhaps even worthy of service. At the same time, I believe that the modern national state is no longer a serviceable vehicle for human civilization - if it ever really was. The national state is dead - it just doesn't know it yet. Hollowed out by the disintegrative, commodifying forces of capitalism just like the family, the village, and any other civilizing institution (the Church may be a partial exception, but looking from the most secularized country in Europe, a very partial one). And no coherent political alternative to current political conditions can be formulated within the framework of the national state. We need to move on - perhaps by looking back to older forms of social organization. So 'conservative anarchist' is what it'll be.

I've been reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: a study in moral theory. (Notre Dame 1981). It's a persuasive and very disturbing look at ethical discourse in modern society, and at modern society through the prism of ethical discourse. In a (doubtlessly very inadequate) nutshell: MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project to find a absolute, universal standard for morality - whether it is in deontological ethics such as Kant's categorical imperative, or in utilitarian formulations of ethics - has utterly failed. The result is an incoherence in modern discourse about ethics - we retain fragments of the moral systems of earlier times, but no way to integrate them - and the rise of viewpoints such as "emotivism" in the 20th century, which regarded ethical discourse as basically emotional in nature: an ethical judgement no different, so to say, than a preference for a particular kind of food. MacIntyre connects the latter with the nature of human relationships in modern-day management capitalism: instead of basing human intercourse on rational argument, we see manipulation of human beings as so much more means to an end on a massive scale (to MacIntyre, the bureaucrat and the manager are iconical characters of the modern age).

In MacIntyre's view, the failure of the Enlightenment project in ethics faces us with a stark choice: accept the moral nihilism of a Nietzsche or go back to a teleological, virtue-based morality of Aristotle. MacIntyre rejects the first alternative, and argues instead for a teleological view on morality in which the concept of 'virtue' embodied in practices, traditions and historically local social and cultural groups is paramount (rather than the concept of a universal and abstract 'rule'). So, the basis of ethics is the self-actualization of a human being as-he-should-be, the development of the human being towards a specific goal: but this requires the integrity and coherence of the human life as a 'narrative structure' (a story, with a 'where do we come from' and a 'where are we going?' so to speak) as well as the integration of that human life within the life of a tradition, a historical community acting as the vessel of basic values and ideals. MacIntyre thus defends the local nature of morality and 'virtue', and their rootedness in the life of a community (for Aristotle, the Hellenic polis), yet this does not imply moral relativism, as it does not imply that there is no basis for a dialogue between traditions and the rejection of one conception of virtues to the other (just the absence of a disembodied rule-based morality).

There is a lot to say about MacIntyre's book (and a lot more for me to think, too). MacIntyre is, as I understand, a Roman Catholic with Marxist roots, and the book is aside from a essay on ethics a trenchant criticism of liberalism which is not afraid of being conservative without being backward-looking. But at the same time, its conclusion is unremittingly bleak.

Some fairly disconnected fragments and comments:

Before MacIntyre deals with Aristotle, he treats virtue as it appeared in 'heroic societies': the kind of society that survives in epics such as Homer's Iliad and the Icelandic sagas. Specific to heroic societies, according to MacIntyre, is a lack of alienation as it were: there is no way for the individual in society to 'step outside' its role and the ethical precepts and obligations which that role brings with it, which allows MacIntyre to make a contrast between the very close connection to the self and a role (with accompanying ethical precepts and ideals) in heroic society and modern-day pluralism, and thus between a local, tradition-bound virtue ethics and the failed Enlightenment project of socially and culturally disembodied universal morality:

There is thus the sharpest of contrasts between the emotivist self of modernity and the self of the heroic age. The self of the heroic age lacks precisely that characteristic which we have already seen that some modern moral philosophers take to be an essential characteristic of human selfhood: the capacity to detach oneself from any particular standpoint or point of view from the outside. In heroic society there is no 'outside' except that of the stranger. A man who tried to withdraw himself from his given position in heroic society would be engaged in the enterprise of trying to make himself disappear.
Identity in heroic society involves particularity and accountability. I am answerable for doing or failing to do what anyone who occupies my role owes to others and this accountability terminates only with death. I have until my death to do what I have to do. Moreover this accountability is particular. It is to, for and with specific individuals what I must do what I ought, and it is to these same and other individuals, members of the same local community, that I am accountable. The heroic self does not itself aspire to universality even although in retrospect we may recognize universal worth in the achievements of that self.
(...) Nobody now can be a Hector or a Gisli. The answer is that perhaps what we have to learn from heroic societies is twofold: first that all morality is always to some degree tied to the socially local and particular and that the aspirations of the morality of modernity to a universality freed from all particularity is an illusion; and secondly that there is no way to possess the virtues except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors in which series heroic societies hold first place.

(p. 118-119).

MacIntyre explores the problem of conflicting moral claims in Greek Tragedy, and argues that the presentation of this conflict in Sophocles' tragedies is of a very different nature than the presentation of moral heterogeneity in modern society by for example Karl Weber and Isaiah Berlin, in that the protagonist of Greek Tragedy had no way to step 'out' of his role and had no choice but to acknowledge the validity of both claims. There is thus no way of viewing the heterogeneity of virtues as somehow 'relativizing' them or seeing them as being neither true or false:

The interest of a Sophocles lies in his presentation of a view equally difficult for a Platonist or a Weberian to accept. There are indeed crucial conflicts in which different virtues appear as making rival and incompatible claims upon us. But our situation is tragic in that we have to recognise the authority of both claims. There is an objective moral order, but our perceptions of it are such that we cannot bring rival moral truths into complete harmony with each other and yet the acknowledgement of the moral order and of moral truth makes the kind of choice which a Weber or a Berlin urges upon us out of the question. For to choose does not exempt me from the authority of the claim which I chose to go against.
(...) the moral protagonist stands in a relationship to his community and his social roles which is neither the same as that of the epic hero nor again the same as that of modern individualism. For like the epic hero the Sophoclean protagonist would be nothing without his or her place in the social order, in the family, the city, the army at Troy. He is she is what society takes him to be. But he or she is not only what society takes him or her to be: he or she both belongs to a place in the social order and transcends it. And he or she does so precisely by encountering and acknowledging the kind of conflict which I have just identified.

(p. 134)

This subtle and dialectical formulation of the relationship between society and the individual enables MacIntyre, I believe, to assert the localness and rootedness of virtue traditions without moral relativism: moral relativism implies we take a vantage point which we in reality cannot take. We can transcend society in that we can recognize the validity of rivalling moral claims; yet we cannot place ourselves out of society as individuals whose life is a 'narrative structure' which is rooted the social transmission of ethical traditions. The consequence of this is that the good may be something which in practice is unattainable to us: yet the moral obligation remains. In other words, that we may not be able to do something doesn't mean we shouldn't:

One way in which the choice between rival goods in a tragic situation differs from the modern choice between incommensurable moral premises is that both of the alternative courses of action which confront the individual have to be recognised as leading to some authentic and substantial good. By choosing one I do nothing to diminish or derogate from the claims upon me of the other; and therefore, whatever I do, I shall have left undone what I ought to have done. The tragic protagonist, unlike the moral agent as depicted by Sartre or Hare, is not choosing between allegiance to one moral principle rather than another, nor is he or she deciding upon some principle of priority between moral principles. Hence the 'ought' involved has a different meaning and force from that of the 'ought' in moral principles understood in a modern way. For the tragic protagonist cannot do everything that he or she ought to do. This 'ought', unlike Kant's, does not imply 'can'.
(p. 208)

The same recognition of genuine conflict is implicit in the harsh way MacIntyre, through Aristotle's eyes, sees a conflict between patriotism and friendship as put forward by E.M. Forster:

Friendship, of course, on Aristotle's view, involves affection. But that affection arises within a relationship defined in terms of a common allegiance and to a common pursuit of goods. The affection is secondary, which is not in the least to say unimportant. In a modern perspective affection is often the central issue: our friends are said to be those whom we like, perhaps whom we like very much. 'Friendship' has become for the most part the name of a type of emotional state rather than a type of social and political relationship. E.M. Forster once remarked that if it came to a choice between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped that he would have the courage to betray his country. In an Aristotelian perspective anyone who can formulate such a contrast has no country, has no polis; he is a citizen of nowhere, an internal exile wherever he lives. Indeed from an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal society can appear only as a collection of citizens of nowhere who have banded together for their common protection. They possess at best that inferior form of friendship which is founded on mutual advantage. That they lack the bond of friendship is of couse bound up with the self-avowed moral pluralism of such liberal societies. They have abandoned the moral unity of Aristotelianism, whether in its ancient or medieval forms.
(p. 146-147)

These are hard words, and MacIntyre's emphasis on the rootedness of morality in a historically local society - the Greek city-state in Aristoteles' case - has severe consequences for the survival of virtues in the modern liberal pluralistic society. Hence patriotism as a virtue becomes increasingly questionable:

In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of its citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratised unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes increasingly unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. When however the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in the society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community - which remains unalterably a central virtue - becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.
(p. 236-237).

Earlier MacIntyre has a sharp characterization of political disagreement in modern society: (...) modern politics cannot be a matter of genuine moral consensus. And it is not. Modern politics is civil war carried on by other means (...) (p. 236). MacIntyre distances himself from anarchism, but his rejection of the modern state seems nonetheless radical:

(...) this necessary distancing of the moral self from the governments of moral states must not be confused with any anarchist critique of the state. Nothing in my argument suggests, let alone implies, any good grounds for rejecting certain forms of government as necessary and legitimate; what the argument does entail is that the modern state is not such a form of government. It must have been clear from earlier parts of my argument that the tradition of the virtues is at variance with central features of the modern economic order and more especially its individualism, its acquisitiveness and its elevation of the values of the market to a central social place. It now becomes clear that it also involves a rejection of the modern political order. This does not mean that there are not many tasks only to be performed in and through government which still require performing: the rule of law, so far as it is possible in a modern state, has to be vindicated, injustice and unwarranted suffering have to be dealt with, generosity has to be exercised, and liberty has to be defended, in ways that are sometimes only possible through the use of governmental institutions. But each particular task, each particular responsibility has to be evaluated on its own merits. Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition.

This is radical stuff - in as far as MacIntyre is a kind of paleoconservative (and I think it is arguable that he is), he is a paleo-paleo-paleoconservative, and he chides modern-day conservatives for rejecting parts of modernity, liberalism, and the social disintegration wrought by the omnipresent market; but remaining faithfully committed to the market economics that has produced modern liberalism:

The individualism of modernity could of course find no use for the notion of tradition within its own conceptual scheme except as an adversary notion; it therefore all too willingly abandoned it to the Burkeans, who, faithful to Burke's own allegiance, tried to combine adherence in politics to a conception of tradition which would vindicate the oligarchical revolution of property of 1688 and adherence in economics to the doctrine and institutions of the free market. The theoretical incoherence of this mismatch did not deprive it of ideological usefulness. But the outcome has been that modern conservatives are for the most part engaged in conserving only older rather than later versions of liberal individualism. Their own core doctrine is as liberal and as individualist as that of self-avowed liberals.
(p. 207)

Though MacIntyre has some warm words for certain Marxists, in particular Trotsky, he firmly rejects Marxism as a political alternative to liberal individualism as well:

Marxist socialism is at its core deeply optimistic. For however thorough-going its criticism of capitalist and bourgeois institutions may be, it is committed to asserting that within the society constituted by those institutions, all the human and material preconditions of a better future are being accumulated. Yet if the moral impoverishment of advanced capitalism is what so many Marxists agree that it is, whence are these resources for the future to be derived? It is not surprising that at this point Marxism tends to produce its own versions of the Uebermensch: Lukacs' ideal proletarian, Leninism's ideal revolutionary. When Marxism does not become Weberian social democracy or crude tyranny, it tends to become Nietzschean fantasy. One of the most admirable aspects of Trotsky's cold resolution was his refusal of all such fantasies.
(p. 244)

I do not share MacIntyre's positive valuation of Trotsky on this count. Though MacIntyre is right in praising Trotsky's analysis of Stalinism (The Revolution Betrayed, 1937), I am not at all sure Trotsky ever departed from the 'Nietzschean fantasy' inherent in Leninism's emphasis on the revolutionary vanguard with its correct and 'revolutionary' consciousness, etc. Indeed the Trotskyists have always claimed to be the rightful inheritors of the Leninist tradition and as far as I can see, they are correct to do so.

MacIntyre ends his work with a gloomy and disquieting look to the future:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead - often not recognising fully what they were doing - was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.
(p. 244-245)

MacIntyre published those lines in 1981, at a time when the Cold War was on its last leg, a wave of neo-liberalism was to set in in the United States and Britain, but at the same time leftist ideology seemed still in fairly good shape and multiculturalism as a political ideal was just being articulated. Now multiculturalism, at least in Western Europe, is something of an expletive: an acknowledgement that there are competing and incommensurable moral systems living side-by-side and that liberal individualism as an ideological basis for the modern state is simply incapable of integrating those systems is setting in. In that sense, MacIntyre was pretty far-sighted.

As I understand, MacIntyre converted to Catholicism not long after the publication of After Virtue. This arouses my curiosity as the Catholic Church has perhaps at least partially constituted a bastion against modernity - never quite accepting the Enlightenment and the concomitant 'dehellenization' (to use Benedict XVI's term) in the sciences and religion, and never accepting modern capitalism and its elevation of greed as a founding principle of society either. I earlier briefly mentioned the disintegrating effects of capitalism on society: the alienation between the worker and its work (currently, now that 'flexibility' is such a buzzword, involving even the dissolution of the long tradition of one person having more or less one trade or profession exercised at more or less one place; capitalism has turned the workforce into professional nomads); the commodification of everything - of art, of sexuality, of religion, and even of political radicalism; the slow but certain dissolution of national states (in Europe, through their incorporation into a faceless and bureaucratic entity named the European Union); the dissolution of the family - I could go on. Marx held capitalism to be a revolutionary force and for good reason. He may have been wrong to have held that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction, of its transcendence by a superior socialist order. And if he was wrong, and if MacIntyre's right, capitalism is a force of mere destruction, a 'revolutionary' force that should make us all embittered counterrevolutionaries.

Religious traditions have hardly been immune to co-optation, through the acceptance of religious pluralism, the spread of New Age and other fad religions, etc. The great Protestant churches in Europe stand empty or cling to a dwindling local base such as the surviving reformed communities in the Netherlands. The Evangelical movements in contrast seem to be brimming with life. Though at least some of those movements have embraced modernism and especially capitalism a bit too enthusiastically (I am thinking, in particular, of the hideous 'God likes me, so I have a lot of money' monstrosities of prosperity theology). Though I think there is some kind of genuine vitality among Evangelicals, and also signs of some loss of attachment to the American Christian right. And the Catholic Church exists tenaciously on, almost as if to mock the modern world...

I wonder how the Christian tradition will develop and will survive the 'dark ages' which I agree with MacIntyre are upon us. And especially how the two strains that seemed to have steered clear of theological liberalism best (the Catholic Church and the Evangelicals) will do.

As to the larger political scene, some kind of alliance between the erstwhile political Left and elements of the political Right has developed over the last decade or so, specifically between the anti-globalist and anti-interventionist left and the paleoconservative (to a lesser extent libertarian) strains of the right. I am interested to see at least some elements of this same hybridity in MacIntyre's work: an uncompromising critique of modern capitalism (by implication also involving globalism, imperialism, etc.) coupled with a rejection of some key Enlightenment notions and a revaluation of tradition as the necessary vessel of ethics, virtue and civilization (counterposed to the traditional Left/Enlightenment ideal of progress). In that sense too MacIntyre's book is quite appropriate for times like these.

1 opmerking:

Anoniem zei

quite interesting article. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did you guys hear that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again.