We are in a moral crisis. The unending arguments over abortion, health care, and gun control are symptoms of the flaws of modernity according to the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre. Modernity is a fragmented version of Aristotelian ethics; it demands an individualist worldview, despite the fact that our culture and vocabulary reflect a communitarian heritage. What this means is that our endless arguments stem from the fact that we lack a shared conception of the good; in other words, our moral systems are incommensurable. For instance, the central conflict between Kantianism and Utilitarianism is not that either is logically inconsistent; rather, it stems from the fact that each theory has a different conception of the good.

Both theories, in their best versions, follow logically from their stated premises; the problem is that these premises are merely stated. After realizing the heterogeneity of pleasures, the great utilitarian Henry Sidgwick concluded that moral beliefs couldn’t be argued and must be merely accepted —just trust your intuitions! Immanuel Kant argued that a rational agent is logically committed to the rules of morality in virtue of their rationality; in order to practice reason, one must possess the freedom and well being necessary for rational agency. This led Kant to the conclusion that one is entitled to such freedom and well being. Although it is logically necessary to possess such freedom and well being to practice reason, it does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that one is entitled to them. This is merely asserted by Kant. According to MacIntyre, Utilitarianism and Kantianism’s fundamental premises are merely stated in this way. This is why the arguments between the two are endless: they are fundamentally incommensurable.

After Virtue is primarily a diagnosis of this moral crisis. It analyzes various aspects of our culture, language, and society to demonstrate that modernity is indeed a fragmented version of Aristotelian ethics; furthermore, it argues that the inventions of modernity such as emotivism and individualism are the root causes of our moral predicament. One of the most striking features of the book is its analysis of modern social roles. The defining character of modernity is that of a bureaucratic manager. A manager pretends to be effective and morally neutral; a manager adjusts the means to ends in the most economically efficient manner. Plus, managerial expertise requires a set of law-like generalizations to justify the manager. Unsurprisingly, one can easily spot the manager: Liberalism pretends to be effective and morally neutral, Liberalism privileges economic methodologies and conceptions, and the Enlightenment fetishizes law-like generalizations. The most interesting aspect of the manager, in my opinion, is McIntyre’s discussion on the fetishization of law-like generalizations.

This fetish is particularly apparent in the social sciences; they present themselves as providing law-like generalizations, despite the lack of evidence and predictability that is characteristic of those fields. Unlike most scientists who follow the Enlightenment, McIntyre contends that the worth of a scientific discipline is not determined by its predictive power. He believes that this is the wrong criterion by which to judge the success of the social sciences, because their subject is vastly more complicated and unpredictable: language, groups of persons, entire nations, and the global market. They cannot make predictions and generalizations that are nearly as strong as those made by Physics or Biology; even the strongest arguments have counter-examples.

For example, two of the most famous studies in sociology do not follow the Popperian model of falsification. First, James C. Davies’s famous thesis in 1962 generalizes Tocqueville’s observation that the French Revolution occurred when a period of rising and, to some degree, gratified expectations was followed by a period of set-back when expectations continued to rise and were sharply disappointed.  Second, Rosalind and Ivo Feierabend (1966) generalized that the most and least modernized societies are the most stable and least violent, whereas those at midpoint in the approach to modernity are most liable to instability and political violence. There exist many counter-examples to both: Russian and Chinese Revolutions to Davies, and Political Violence in Latin America to Feierabend’s. Nonetheless, such counter-examples do not refute their status as salient generalizations in Sociology. There exist no counter-factuals that ultimately refute a generalization.

This is not a fact that cheapens these disciplines. It merely reflects just how complicated human beings are. We are intentional beings that can choose one act over another. Choice creates unpredictability. All of this is then further complicated by the fact that we are social and linguistic beings. We have to figure out how complex beings interact with each other unpredictably in complex structures like the market, the state, and language. It would be impudent of Social Scientists to expect the law-like generalizations one encounters in Science. This is why McIntyre argues that it is wrong to expect law-like generalizations regarding sociology, politics, and so on.

Why is it then that we fetishize such law-like generalizations? As I briefly mentioned above, it is tied to the philosophical framework assumed by modernity; that is, modernity’s attachment to the ideal of the bureaucratic manager. Under the bureaucracy of modernity, moral beliefs are treated as inconvenient features of persons that function far better when they are managed by an “efficient” and “economically practical” bureaucracy. The manager justifies their position by insisting that they have law-like generalizations regarding human nature and social institutions; furthermore, they boast that they can provide an efficient governing of a pluralist society without privileging one good over another. However, modernity does, in fact, assume a set of goods that are disguised as morally neutral; the philosopher Michael Sandel lays out a number of such goods in his great book, What Money Can’t Buy.

Modernity cannot make law-like generalizations, yet we obey its tenets without much argument; we argue within the confines of modernity that were designed to be endless. McIntyre suggests that we look to the past for answers to our problems. Across several chapters, McIntyre sketches the moral framework of past societies ranging from the Greeks to Medieval Christians. What they all had in common was a shared conception of the good. Such goods like prudence, justice, and courage were achieved through the virtues that are human qualities acquired through practice. Furthermore, they recognized that a person is embedded in a social context: I am a son, a citizen, and a musician. Personal identity is a narrative that unifies one’s life from past to present, and my narrative is embedded in other narrative such as family, school, and friendship.

The problem of modernity is not only that it brings about endless arguments, but also that it is incompatible with our ordinary intuitions. We come from a past, in which our obligations and personal identity are constituted by the social context to which we belong. My community consumes most of my actions and thoughts; I act and think as a student and a family member, rather than a rational agent with his or her individual interests. When we judge a person’s character, we judge them by, more or less, a table of virtues, rather than whether they follow the categorical imperative or whether they pass the utilitarian calculus. The project of modernity is doomed to fail, because it cannot dissipate our communitarian past with its endless arguments and managerial fetish.

After Virtue turned out to be far more damning in its criticism than I anticipated. For the numerous Kantians and Utilitarians out there, this will be a group of pointed criticisms; one will not only find attacks on Kant and Sidgwick, but also criticisms of Rawls and Nozick. Indeed, this book is highly political; it analyzes Marx and Weber within the framework of the book’s communitarian argument. For my Marxist friends, this is not an easy read. Despite McIntyre’s admiration of Marx, he believes that Marx and his followers ultimately fall under the same moral framework that he takes down in this book. This is very much true in my own experience. Marxists have great criticisms of the managerial and bureaucratic aspects of Capitalism and Liberalism; yet, their solutions to Capitalism always end up Kantian or Utilitarian. It is either to follow an abstract principle of universality, or “to achieve communism by any means necessary.” What this suggests is that the faults of Capitalism and Liberalism are not merely economic and political: the error is modernity itself. By rejecting the Aristotelian system of virtues, any project is destined to fail no matter what social or economic structure they adopt. Undoubtedly, this is McIntyre’s deadliest gesture, because it indicates a deep pessimism about the project of modernity as a whole. As he discusses Trotsky’s later writings and his pessimism towards a communist future, McIntyre asks us to not fall into pessimism —it does not logically follow that we have no way out! But, the reader comes away with a dreadful feeling that we might never resolve the moral crisis; Aristotle has been dead for thousands of years.

 

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