Another Book: After Virtue

OK, I admit that when you set out to write a list of ten books that have most influenced your thought processes, you end up having to dig pretty deep and start scraping the bottom somewhere around number six.

But rather than admit defeat, I’ll mention part of a book that I never had the chance to finish reading: chapter one of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

MacIntyre opens with a little bit of science fiction, describing a futuristic world in which all scientists have been murdered, all research facilities destroyed, all scientific libraries burnt to the ground by angry mobs. A few generations later humanity repents of its efforts to stamp out science and tries to recreate it out whatever fragments can be found: a few pages of Newton’s Optics, a rusty old microscope, an internet blog post giving a half-assed account of the Michelson-Morley experiment… little by little the human race attempts to reconstruct the edifice once known as “science”.

Oh, I wouldn't call it half-assed... I'd call it frickin' stoopid!

Oh, I wouldn’t call your attempt half-assed… I’d call it frickin’ stoopid!

The task of course would be impossible. It was not just the vast amount of scientific data that was destroyed, but the entire context of that data, the whole sense of history and development that links the data together. Most importantly, the community and culture in which that data made sense, the scientific community, is gone forever. We can imagine this future humanity arguing whether Eisenstein physics really accounts for how sun revolves around the earth. Any “scientific debates” they might have would strike us as ridiculous, and would go around in endless circles. Their fragments of knowledge could never add up to a coherent whole.

Believe in the Copernican System or die!

Believe in the Copernican System or die!

This imaginary situation, according to MacIntyre, has really happened. It describes today’s world, not regarding science, but regarding another body of knowledge: ethics.

For proof he points to several contemporary moral debates, for example:

  • Person A: Abortion should be legal because a woman must define for herself her own meaning and destiny.
  • Person B: Abortion should be illegal because the fetus is substantially human, and as such possesses an inherent dignity.
  • Person C: Is impossible to say if abortion is right or wrong, so the government should not have any laws regarding it (…it should be legal.)

As we all know, A and B will argue until they become shrill, turn blue, and take out restraining orders against one another. C likes to imagine himself as the voice of reason because he finds both A and B equally distasteful, but in practice he always comes down on A’s side while pretending to sympathize with B, so both A and B end up bullying, using or ignoring the little turd. After a while they give up arguing and concentrate on serving each other with lawsuits.

Since all three use the following words in making their arguments, “human rights”, “responsibility”, “dignity”, “rule of law”, “government intrusion”, “The Constitution” and so on, you would think they would have some common ground they could agree on. But they don’t, because they give the words different meanings. Instead they just call one another stupid, irrational, over-emotional, mean-spirited, etc.

But since they all follow the basic rules of logic there is nothing “stupid” about any of the arguments. The problem is that they have different points of departure, different assumptions about the world, and different historical origins. The communities, or cultural contexts, in which the arguments originally made sense to everyone are shattered. The arguments are like something you would find at an archaeological dig: isolated fragments of lost cultures.

Person A’s argument comes from a radical 19th and 20th intellectual tradition that runs from Nietzsche to Jean Paul Sartre, which sees value and meaning only in human will. It is a tradition that has always been, and shall always be, limited to a handful of people because it is ultimately anti-social: you cannot build a civilization on Sartre’s dictum that “Hell is other people.”

Person B’s argument sees an intimate connection between nature and meaning, and assumes that there is some sort of objective moral order in the universe. Plato and Aristotle might not have agreed with it, but they could have at least appreciated the point being made. Most people today just scratch their heads.

Person C’s argument is based on the work of 18th century philosophers like Emmanuel Kant who made perfect sense back then. But these guys lived in an age of comfortable presumptions about morals and law, and never had to deal with issues like abortion or gay marriage. (Well, they did have to deal with slavery. Did a bad job of it with 600,000 American deaths in the Civil War.) Kantian logic presumes morals, and cannot really deal with these sorts of issues. Because it cannot make a real moral decision it always comes down on the side of the most radical party in any argument while giving lip service to compromise, which can be seen in our own government from Dred Scott to Roe v Wade.

Because we have a fragmented tradition of moral reasoning, we have no common public language of morality, and as a result our politics has become, in MacIntyre’s words, “civil war by other means.”

So how do we fix the problem? Well, between library late fees and last minute packing for an international trip, I never finished the book. I did manage to skim it a little, and from what I gather the author does not think an intellectual resolution is possible. Just as the future human race in the above parable would have to recreate science from the ground up, building a new, perhaps quite different scientific culture and language over generations of trial and error (only then would all the fragments they had gathered start to make sense), so to is it necessary to construct a new culture with its own ethical language within the rotting trunk of the old one. MacIntyre points to the example of Benedict of Nursia, who is generally credited with salvaging what was best of the old Roman order and laying the economic and cultural foundations for Medieval Europe. Hardly a comfort since the process took five or six centuries, but at least it can be done.

How has this one chapter of a book been so influential in how I think? We all like to imagine that everyone who disagrees with us is either stupid, evil, or both. But if all disagreements had their roots in stupidity, evil intentions, or psychology, how would we know if we were not really the stupid, evil, crazy ones? MacIntyre helps diagnose why well-meaning people can disagree with such vehemence, and he underlines the long historical processes that produce these sorts of cultural melt-downs.

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