Ethics and the Conflicts of Modernity

Against the Current, No. 200, May/June 2019

Joe Stapleton

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE (b. 1929), the renowned Scottish moral philosopher, began his career as a critic of modern capitalist morality when he was a young doctoral student active in the British Left. Beginning with the Communist Party of Great Britain in the mid-1950s, and adopting first orthodox Trotskyism as a member of the Socialist Labor League, then heterodox Trotskyism as a member of International Socialists in the early 1960s, MacIntyre finally took his leave from the Marxist organizing scene in Great Britain in the late 1960s.*

MacIntyre’s lifelong project was the discovery, and later recovery, of what he believed had been lost in modern society: some coherent idea of what it meant for humans to live a good life. At least one factor behind his abandonment of the Marxist discourse was his disappointment with Marxism’s inability to recognize the deficiencies of its own moral life.

Eventually, MacIntyre found the resources necessary for his project not by looking forward to communism, but by looking back to ancient Athenian society — to Aristotle and his theory of virtue ethics, specifically. This does not mean, however, that MacIntyre ever made his peace with capitalism — something his more conservative adherents find very confusing.

While he may have abandoned revolutionary politics, his criticism of capitalism moved from critique of the economic system (the focus of his early Marxist writings) to a relentless critique of its moral system. MacIntyre spent much of his career in the 1980s and 1990s critiquing what in Ethics and the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative (ECM) (Cambridge University Press, 2016) he refers to as capital-M Morality.

This Morality is the Morality of modernity, or capitalist society. Its three main schools derive from the deontological theory of Immanuel Kant, the utilitarian doctrines of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and the contractarian theory of Thomas Hobbes, which was later developed by both liberal and conservative thinkers such as John Rawls and Robert Nozick, respectively.

MacIntyre believes that all of these theories, insofar as they build upon similar assumptions at their base, ultimately fail as moral frameworks. They are doomed by their own internal contradictions, much like the economic system whose philosophy they are. (In After Virtue, MacIntyre’s magnum opus, he treats in brilliant detail the historical, social, and philosophical conditions for the failure of Morality as a system.)

In ECM, his primary focus is two competing critiques of Morality: that of expressivism, a school of thought that could arguably claim Friedrich Nietzsche as its founder, and NeoAristotelianism, MacIntyre’s own system.

Ethics and Reason

Ethics and the Conflicts of Modernity is broken up into five chapters. In the first chapter, MacIntyre introduces a theoretical impasse between expressivism and NeoAristotelianism. In the second, he asks how our ability to make ethical judgments is frustrated by the political and economic structures of modern societies.

The third chapter gives an account of expressivism’s critique of Morality and its limits; the fourth gives an account of the NeoAristotelian critique and how it moves us past the limits of expressivism. Finally, the fifth chapter tells the story of the ethical lives of four public figures and asks what we can learn about practical reasoning from each.

According to MacIntyre, the calling card of Morality is its presumption that it can specify universal moral norms binding on individuals as such, abstracted from the social structures and historical conditions that, to a great extent, form them into the specific people that they are.

In this way, Morality insists it can essentially “solve” moral issues once and for all — its moral precepts simply need to be “applied” to specific situations. Thus John Rawls would have us evaluate the justness of our institutions based on whether they are the sorts of institutions we would construct with others if none of us knew anything specific about the status of ourselves or the others.

Kant would have us make moral decisions according to rules such as “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham would break down all moral consideration into the cold utilitarian logic of which option would be most satisfying to the most people.

In chapter one, MacIntyre introduces the expressivist critique of Morality. Nietzsche held that all systems purporting to be founded on some universal concept — whether it be “the good,” God, or “reason” — were merely an expression of the inner desires and sentiments of the moralists whose systems they were.

The expressivists attempt to construct a moral theory based on this critique by asserting that the individual is the starting point and sole standard for evaluating ethical decisions — in other words, that moral terms do not refer to objective situations in the real world but to personal mental states.

All our ethical choices are expressions of more or less deeply held sentiments and desires. The key to evaluating those choices is asking to what extent they are true expressions of who we are, and not expressions of outside constraints imposed upon us. For the expressivist, there is no independent standard outside the individual’s feelings and desires according to which they might consider their judgments correct or incorrect.

The second critique is MacIntyre’s own perspective, what he calls NeoAristotel­ianism. From this point of view, the claims of universal norms binding on individuals as such fail to understand themselves for what they are: ethical systems arising out of a specific society under particular historical conditions.

NeoAristotelians understand humans as members of particular communities, with social roles and ethical standards occupied by and shared by members of such communities. Through rational deliberation and moral inquiry, these communities come to understand themselves in terms of human flourishing. It is according to this standard — objective in the sense that it is formed in community with others — that NeoAristotelians are able to evaluate their ethical judgments.

NeoAristotelians and expressivists can recognize a certain kinship as critics of Morality, but they soon understand that their systems are, in the end, incompatible. They differ in how they make decisions between competing desires, how they deliberate about such decisions, and how they would narrate the personal history of their moral decision-making. (112)

Good Ethical Choices Frustrated

If we take the NeoAristotelian critique of Morality seriously and agree that it is the moral system of modern capitalist society, rather than a discourse concerning universal moral norms, we must understand how and why this society frustrates our ability to make good ethical choices.

To investigate this question, MacIntyre turns to Marx. According to MacIntyre, it was Marx’s Aristotelian way of understanding capitalism that allowed him to see capitalism in a way closed off to those bourgeois economists he critiqued  —  that is, he understood not only capitalism’s essential properties but also its potentiality, or what it must by its nature become.

Marx’s critical standpoint allowed him to see capital for what it was: unpaid labor, or appropriated surplus value.  Not only could Marx see what capitalism actually was, he could also see how it concealed what it actually was, through the “contractual” relationship between capital and labor.

From a NeoAristotelian standpoint, moral theorists ought to be able to draw upon the resources of their society in order to critique and move beyond it, but this is precisely what Morality disables. MacIntyre uses the example of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume to illustrate this point.

Hume imputes what he calls “avarice” (what we might call greed) to “all persons” in all places and times. In fact, he asserts that power and riches are universally admired by all people, for various reasons. Hume himself did not take positions like this to be mere addenda to his moral philosophy but following directly from it, based as it was on what he took to be universal “sentiments” and “affections” rather than reason.

Of course, what these supposedly universal sentiments happened to be were full-throated endorsements of the political and economic hierarchy of Great Britain in the 18th century.

What MacIntyre draws from this is that we are liable to go wrong as practical reasoners if we fall prey to the prejudices of the dominant society of which we are a part. To avoid this, one must have what MacIntyre calls “sociological self-knowledge,” or an ability to see oneself and one’s society from an external point, or, he remarks importantly, “from the very different perspective of those deprived and marginalized in one’s society.” (112)

Sociological self-knowledge involves knowing how you and those around you stand in relation to the distribution of power and money in your society, and what about that standing is consonant with or frustrates the exercise of rational agency.

Although he doesn’t say it, it is within the boundaries of MacIntyre’s argument to assert that he’s suggesting we do what Marx was able to do: reason from the standpoint of working-class consciousness.

Moral Reasoning and Community

In chapter three MacIntyre returns to his account of expressivism to see if we have learned anything about its impasse with NeoAristotelianism.

What MacIntyre finds compelling about expressivism is its assertion that rational agents must in some prerational sense identify with their moral choices if those choices are to be truly theirs. Rather than assuming that agents simply follow the dictates of reason straight to the universal rules characteristic of Morality, expressivism points out that there are forces within us other than reason — our emotions, sentiments, desires, etc. —that deeply affect how we make decisions.

This is something Morality by and large overlooks, and why the expressivist critique is necessary. What expressivism can’t give us, however, is just as instructive.

If we consider the situation of an expressivist who must make a decision regarding two equally legitimate but conflicting goods, they will first of all understand their decision-making process as an internal conflict at the end of which they must figure out which desire is a truer reflection of themselves. Therefore, their reasons must be particularly theirs — they cannot be considered binding on any other person, even if the other is encountering a similar situation.
MacIntyre asks, what could an expressivist say to someone who asserts that they are actually deceived about what truly reflects them? The expressivist, whose reasons for acting are purely subjective, cannot respond in a way that would be convincing to someone else.

For MacIntyre, this points us to the truth of the NeoAristotelian position, that good moral reasoning can only occur within a community that has some shared conception of what it means for human beings to flourish. It is necessary, if we are to be good practical reasoners, that we are accountable to and that we learn from others who can see when we are wrong.

MacIntyre begins chapter four with an account of what it means to be a good practical reasoner from the perspective of the dominant social order. In capitalist modernity, to be a good practical reasoner is to be what economists call a preference maximizer — someone whose moral (and other) decisions are based on what will make them happy.

The NeoAristotelian cannot take happiness as a legitimate end for human beings, because in order for human beings to be considered “flourishing” they must have good reasons for being happy. If someone is perfectly happy making five dollars an hour cleaning floors with dangerous chemicals, we would say they have a poor understanding of their actual situation.

How people evaluate their reasons for being happy has a great deal to do with how they have been schooled by others in their community in the virtues, or the skills, necessary both for discerning between genuine and apparent goods, and discerning the best way to pursue those goods.

MacIntyre identifies families, workplaces, and schools as those communities that have practices proper to them that function to instruct their members in the virtues. Knowledge of the individual and common goods of those communities, and developing the skills for navigating situations in which those goods conflict, allows individuals to convincingly justify their moral choices in a way expressivists can’t.

In pursuing the individual and common goods proper to their families, workplaces and schools, the question inevitably arises for the individual as to how these goods are to be ordered in their lives as a whole.

This is the move from understanding what it means to flourish as a student or as a union member to what it means to flourish as a human being.

This process, if it is to be pursued rightly, inevitably entails rational deliberation with others concerning how to achieve both individual and common goods. In most times and places, there are aspects of a society that enable this deliberation, and aspects that frustrate it.

Much of the content of chapter four is a restatement of ideas MacIntyre has worked out in earlier works, but the addition of “sociological self-knowledge” to the requirements for rational deliberation is something new. I believe this crucial addition to MacIntyre’s account of practical rationality is a result of a prolonged re-engagement with Marx over the past few decades.

The Necessity of Struggle

ECM ends with a series of brief biographical sketches of certain public figures: C.L.R. James, Vasily Grossman, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Denis Faul. Three of these four figures spent much of their lives in close contact with the problems of Marxism.

For readers of this journal, I venture that the account of the pan-Africanist Marxist and one-time Trotskyist C.L.R. James will be especially compelling. In it, MacIntyre not only traces key life decisions of one of the most important critical Marxists but also gives his own (brief) account of the questions Trotskyists at that time did not ask and should have, such as “What kind of human being do I need to become, if in struggling for the replacement of capitalism and imperialism by a more humane order I am to achieve my own good?” (282)

There is a moment, in the tenth section of chapter four, when MacIntyre offers an uncomplicated endorsement of the necessity of the class struggle. When it is the case, he says, that a powerful group of people has defined itself as “enemies of any rationally defensible conception of civil and political order,” and when it has been proven that the preservation of this order rests on the inability of others to achieve their individual and common goods, the virtues developed in our communities call not for understanding their point of view, or rational debate with them.

Instead, disagreement with this group and with the theorists who prop them up must be “pursued as a prologue to prolonged social conflict.” (220) But actually, this whole book —  indeed, most of MacIntyre’s career — can be read as a call for struggle against the ways that capitalist modernity attempts to define us, through defining what actions are open to us as practical reasoners.

Whether in building local communities of resistance (MacIntyre’s preferred option) or building mass movements (the Marxist option), capitalism is worth fighting against, on grounds that Marxists tend to cede to it — that is, on moral grounds.

May-June 2019—ATC 200