‘Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative’ reviewed by Tom Angier

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2016. 332pp., £29.99 hb
ISBN 9781107176454

Reviewed by Tom Angier

About the reviewer

Tom Angier lectures in Philosophy at the University of Cape Town, and works on Moral Philosophy. He …


Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity consolidates a remarkable intellectual career that spans over six decades. After 1953, MacIntyre confined most of his work on Marxism to non-academic magazines and pamphlets, but in this magnum opus Marxist claims and insights make a resounding return, and arguably form its centrepiece. In Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity we also see the substantial return of narrative, a theme central to MacIntyre’s seminal paper, ‘Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science’ (1977), but (until now) one marginal to his subsequent work. There are, in addition, highly ambitious, synoptic critiques of both ‘Morality’ and Expressivism – building on his earlier critiques of normative ethical theory and emotivism respectively – along with a renewed, fortified elaboration of Thomistic Aristotelianism. Although the book contains five chapters in all, I shall concentrate on those directly relevant to MacIntyre’s engagement with Marxism.

Chapter one is relatively technical, dealing with two conflicting accounts of desire and the ‘good’, namely those proposed by expressivists on the one hand, and NeoAristotelians (including Thomists) on the other. Chapter two, entitled ‘Theory, practice, and their social contexts’, broaches the task of vindicating NeoAristotelianism against its rivals by supplementing it with elements of Marxism. MacIntyre begins (§2.1) by pinpointing a deformation consequent upon academic specialisation, professionalisation and compartmentalisation: viz. that, taken together, these radically occlude the ‘standpoint of practical agency’ (76), which – in and through practical deliberation – integrates complex sets of considerations, and never confines itself to (e.g.) maximising utility simpliciter, or respecting individuals’ human rights tout court. These master notions within Morality are, according to MacIntyre, ‘philosophical fictions’ (77), which stand in need of actual social and deliberative embodiment. Lest this assertion of the academic ‘mystification’ of practice (to use a Marxist term) prove too hard to swallow, MacIntyre provides a helpful example (§2.2): Hume’s claim that avarice is a ‘natural’ and ‘universal’ passion. Echoing chapters XV-XVI of Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, MacIntyre contends that Hume’s view is (to use another Marxist term) an artefact of ‘ideology’: Hume is merely endorsing ‘the values of the eighteenth-century British social and economic order’ (83). In a similar way, many contemporary philosophers – representatives of Morality – accept an increasing number of ‘rights’ to liberty and equality, presenting these as natural and universal. Yet like Hume, they are in fact retailing particular, local values, ones typical, indeed, of their class. In this way, MacIntyre adjures, historical enquiry can show how ‘political and moral philosophy is informed by the deformations of [its] own social and cultural order’ (85).

To his credit, MacIntyre grants that even Aristotle is subject to such ideological deformation (§2.3). Aristotle’s position as a patrician Greek male led him to cast women, slaves, productive workers and non-Greeks as rationally defective, and thus as incapable of realising what he presents (incoherently) as the universal human telos (86). But Aquinas largely rescues Aristotle from these deformations (88) – rendering Thomism the paradigm form of NeoAristotelianism for MacIntyre. In illustration of this, he cites Aquinas’ proleptic critique of Hume, in which Aquinas forcefully condemns the desire for riches as such, and denies we have reason to esteem the rich as such (91). These claims were subsequently leant subtlety and depth by Marx (§2.4), with his theory of exploitation and surplus value. It remains the case, however, that Marx’s core positions in political economy were elaborations of positions already present in Thomistic Aristotelianism, with its advocacy of the common good under the natural law, and concomitant deprecation of pleonexia (viz. the desire for inordinate gain). The tragedy is that this Thomist-cum-Marxist platform – which for MacIntyre represents the antithesis of ideology, and the apogee of practical clear-sightedness – came to face severe opposition in the twentieth century (opposition far more influential than Hume’s). For the new discipline of Economics (§2.5) adopted a conception of practical rationality as the maximisation of preference satisfaction, thereby sidelining the Thomist-cum-Marxist subordination of the individual good to the common good (102). This modern hallowing of pleonexia has since developed into an ideology of immense institutional power, which Marxists and Thomist Distributivists (§2.6) have challenged, but been unable to overturn.

Chapter two ends (§2.7) on a monitory note: the theoretical triumph of pleonexia, despite its manifold practical failures (financial crises, vast inequalities, decreased human flourishing), should alert us to the power of ideology, and the need for what MacIntyre terms ‘sociological self-knowledge’ (112). The latter requires a kind of asceticism, or intellectual and affective discipline, whereby we humbly acknowledge the bearing of our social roles on practice: academics (e.g.) can all too easily further, or at least condone social deprivation and marginalisation. We must all be ruthlessly honest about this, MacIntyre contends, and call one another to account for such professional deformation.

Chapter three applies this ‘enlarged conception of rational justification’ (113) to Morality. At a theoretical level, the latter is a mélange of normative ethical theories (§3.1), proposing absolute prohibitions here, and the maximisation of pleasure there, but all the while offering no governing principles with which to solve the dilemmas it creates. At a practical level (§3.2), Morality is at home in a capitalist environment, which stimulates desires inordinately, and discourages reflection on their justification. This MacIntyre summarises as the ‘ethics of the market’, which is accompanied by the ‘ethics of the state’ (§3.3), a bureaucratic, impersonal, law- and contract-bound set of norms, the nominal egalitarianism of which is undermined by the pervasive influence of wealth (127). In this way, the practical matches the theoretical incoherence of Morality (§§3.4, 5, 6): agents are buffeted by the changing exigencies of state and market, but owing to the procedural ‘neutralism’ of the former, and pleonectic imperative of the latter, they find any objective and stable ordering of goods in their lives hard, if not impossible to achieve. It is this situation of ethical bewilderment and impasse that leads MacIntyre back to Expressivism (§3.7). For only the latter, he argues, can capture the parlous condition of Morality, which far from being a genuine, objective ethics, is a parody thereof (128). Indeed, it is understood best as a multi-layered pretence, laying claim to objectively-ordered values, but in fact collapsing into the expression of fluid, ungrounded subjective preference. (The remainder of chapter three is a philosophically highly adventurous excursus on Oscar Wilde (§3.8), D. H. Lawrence (§3.9), and Bernard Williams (§§3.10, 11).)

Chapter four is dense and rich, constituting the book’s philosophical dénouement. In it MacIntyre adumbrates his ‘politics of local community and conflict’ (§4.2, 3), recapitulates the centrality of human practice as conveyed through narrative or ‘story’ (§§4.9, 10, 12, 13), and (of immediate interest to mainstream Anglophone philosophers) engages in a lengthy rebuttal of Williams’ critique of Aristotelian ethics (§4.11). The rest of the chapter consists in tackling various outstanding disputes between NeoAristotelians and their rivals: viz. the practical rationality of seeking common goods vs rational choice theory (§4.4, 5), eudaimonia vs subjective well-being (§4.6, 7), and integrated vs compartmentalised (or ‘fractured’) roles and norms (§4.1, 8). I shall focus on MacIntyre’s contretemps with Williams.

MacIntyre’s first main target is Williams’ claim, echoed by Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire, that ‘Aristotle is mistaken in thinking that there is any such thing as the good life for human agents’ (222). To this MacIntyre responds that there are at least eight categories of good ‘it would be difficult to deny’ contribute to the good life (here one is reminded of John Finnis’ natural law ethics, which specifies seven such categories). These are: health, material goods that free one from destitution, good family relationships, a decent education, rewarding work, good friends, fruitful leisure and the ability to order one’s life. The more of these goods a life contains, the better it is – and on this, MacIntyre avers, ‘there is in fact a surprising amount of agreement’ (223). It follows that what makes a life go badly, or fail to reach its proper telos, will also elicit substantial agreement: namely, circumstances or actions that deprive one of one or more of the above goods. From these base-level agreements, MacIntyre contends, the NeoAristotelian can infer a set of virtues and vices, which promote human goods and evils respectively (223). He or she can also infer that it is vicious to seek pleasure, power or money per se, since none of these is an intrinsic good: pleasure is bad when it is has evil objects, and both power and money are purely instrumental goods. Of course beyond these core agreements, there will be many disagreements. So how to deal with these?

Here MacIntyre reinvokes what he takes to be a systematic weakness in Williams’ ethical vision, viz. ‘Williams’ insistence on the first person character, a first person that is an “I”, not a “we”, of all practical deliberation that is an authentic expression of the agent’ (224). This emphasis on authenticity sidelines, and even precludes shared deliberation with precisely those others who are relevant to deciding how to order various individual and common goods. (MacIntyre’s engaging narratives of such shared deliberation – e.g. within a Danish fishing community, and a Brazilian favela (§4.3) – provide examples of what he has in mind.) Williams also errs in failing to appreciate the Aristotelian axiom that rationality or logos is the distinctive mark of humans: ‘Quite as distinctive, so he argues, is their capacity for falling helplessly in love’ (225). But although Williams is right that human affective life is distinct from that of other animals, it is so largely because it is infused with rationality: only humans can ask, for instance, ‘Is it a good thing or a bad thing to fall helplessly in love?’, and transform their desires accordingly (226). More widely, then, although humans share much with other species, what marks them out is the capacity to reflect on their ends, and order them so that, as a whole, their lives end up more flourishing than failing. And this requires, in turn, avoiding (e.g.) compartmentalised and hedonistic living, which cannot but hamper one’s final telos (228-9). If Williams had reflected more on such general teleological truths, MacIntyre implies, he too would have found some form of Aristotelianism irresistible.

Chapter five, with its extended narratives of four twentieth-century lives, rounds off this magisterial volume, underlining its thesis that only in and through narrative can Aristotle’s claims about teleology, flourishing and common goods be properly grasped and appreciated. Interestingly, three of these narratives (those of Vasily Grossman, C. L. R. James and Monsignor Denis Faul) portray lives heavily involved with Marxism. And this underscores the degree to which MacIntyre has, towards the end of his impressively long career, managed to overcome a compartmentalisation that afflicted most of it. For as I mentioned above, his work on Marxism has until now been aimed at mainly non-academic audiences. But this raises the question of whether he has replaced one form of ‘double life’ (166, 248, 293) – Philosopher/Marxist – with another: Philosopher/Catholic Christian. For it is noticeable how, although religious commitment is evident in this text, it is carefully sequestered from the main line of argument. MacIntyre argues not for a variety of Thomism, but rather for an awkward hybrid, ‘Thomistic Aristotelianism’, or ‘NeoAristotelianism developed in contemporary Thomistic terms’ (166). Granted, there are several passages concerning God as our final end, but these are highly tentative. MacIntyre speaks, for instance, of the ‘directedness of … life, if not toward God, at least beyond finitude’ (56), and finishes the book by referring to ‘a good toward which desire tends insofar as it remains unsatisfied by even the most desirable of finite goods, as in good lives it does’ (315). There are, moreover, no biblical narratives, or modern saints’ lives, only brief mentions of the Jesuits in New Spain (99), and Cardinal Manning (107), who seem to earn a mention only in virtue of their proto- or quasi-Communist credentials. This is, of course, music to the ears of those who have long hoped for a more explicitly marxisant MacIntyre. But by the same token, it impugns his claim to have embraced the Universal Church and all her teachings.

From a full-bloodedly Marxist, rather than Catholic perspective, things look, if anything, worse. For MacIntyre’s ‘localism’ – he advocates building schools, churches, and other local organisations, as the only way to safeguard and promote genuinely virtuous communities – seems to occlude the structural priority of the global economy. As Fredric Jameson put matters back in the mid-1980s, ‘MacIntyre’s call for a return to the Aristotelian virtues can … be subjected to the same objections he raises against Marxism as a political movement: namely, whether from within capital it is possible to regenerate a life of social groups, a concrete social fabric, which on his own account is inseparable from the practice of those virtues’ (‘Morality versus Ethical Substance’, Social Text, No. 8 (Winter, 1983-1984), p. 153). This criticism of MacIntyre’s supposedly ‘revolutionary’ localism still has real force, a force underlined by Jameson’s description of MacIntyre’s political vision as ‘a kind of enclave theory very consistent with the increasing preoccupation with small group or micro-politics characteristic of the late 60s and beyond’ (ibid.) Just so; I cannot see how, thirty-five years later (After Virtue was published in 1981), MacIntyre has managed to overcome the accusation that he is, in effect, an enclave theorist. (If he adopts this description as a badge of honour, he has not explained how it warrants honour.) To make life even more difficult for MacIntyre, his characterisation of the global economy in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity largely in terms of pleonexia seems insufficiently nuanced to do the analytic and critical work required of it.

Turning to the philosophical core of this astonishingly wide-ranging work, my main criticism is that it is uncertain whether MacIntyre has made good on his claim that only NeoAristotelianism ‘captures certain truths about human beings, truths that we acknowledge in our everyday practices even when they are inconsistent with the way in which we represent ourselves to ourselves [as Moralists or expressivists]’ (201-202). His central reason for holding this is that in practice we cannot help affirming that our lives are teleologically-ordered wholes, whose final end is flourishing, and that we move towards flourishing when we pursue objective goods, and move towards failure when we pursue objective evils. But is it not possible that MacIntyre’s posited final end, together with the specific ‘goods’ which he claims constitute it, are simply an expression of his own, personal – perhaps class-, culture- and family-informed – desires? After all, it is psychologically and sociologically hardly unaccountable that someone born in depression-era Scotland would wish for a revolutionary transformation of society, and be attracted to a religion promising the redemption of suffering. But that such desires, wishes and attractions also establish – and serve to identify – the final and objective good of humanity seems quite another matter. Perhaps an accurate narrative of MacIntyre’s life would reveal that idea as little more than wishful (if also highly original and intelligent) thinking. Many, myself included, hope not.

[This review is a shortened and revised version of a review that is being published in Religious Studies – online version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0034412517000014; print version in press]

27 April 2017

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