Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.2

Up to the present in everyday discourse the habit of speaking of moral judgments as true or false persists; but the question of what it is in virtue of which a particular moral judgment is true or false has come to lack any clear answer.

—-Alasdair MacIntyre


One of MacIntyre’s more important contentions is that philosophy is a central activity in human culture. True, today’s academic curricula isolate it as an esoteric occupation for professors and wannabes only; it is generally an “elective” course offered in isolation from history, political science or any other field that would give it meaningful context. In turn, the other social and physical “sciences” can carry out their activities without consulting the long history and broad context of human thought which once was encompassed by the term “philosophy.” Political philosophy may deal with what a “just” society would be, what the true function of a political commonwealth is, and so on; but political science primarily discusses only how power is gotten and used, regardless of goals or values. I noticed this myself when, as a young philosopher, I made some brief forays into the world of the political science majors. Their concerns and mine simply had no intersection. They were solely interested in how they could implement their agenda when they graduated; what that agenda should be was no concern of them, or of their professors and textbooks. The assumption was that whatever the leader wants is what is to be achieved, and political science is the study of how to achieve that. Whether it should be achieved is the province of philosophers or prophets, they might say; but they would then say that philosophers and prophets are mere dreamers who can and are ignored by the doers. Thus, the goals of politics are the topic for discussion by people who politicians are not to listen to; the political scientist is supposed to study and advise politicians, and the political scientist’s field is not goals but only means. This is exactly the sort of society MacIntyre says we should expect when emotivism becomes the dominant theory of moral language; when moral language is treated as merely a tool to manipulate others, questions about goals largely drop out and only questions about means to ends remain, regardless of how arbitrary those ends might be.

The hollowness of late 20th Century society can be illustrated, MacIntyre thinks, by considering the “characters” in the drama of our social life. He uses the term “character” as it might apply to a medieval morality play: as soon as The Fool steps on stage, we all know what that person will be like, what he will say, and so on. Values, behavior, and social role are all one in “the character.” Another term might be “social archetype.” And the character that MacIntyre believes is most central and illustrative of today’s society is The Manager.[1] The Manager is supposed to be an expert in achieving any sort of end, the essential leader in any bureaucracy; and since we live in a bureaucratic society, The Manager is the most important character. And the expertise of The Manager, as Weber has shown, is the manipulation of others to achieve whatever the goals of the organization are. It is not The Manager’s part to choose those goals, but only to achieve them. It is not The Manager’s job to bring people together to discuss a problem and find the best solution; it is his (or her) job to so shape the initial assumptions and boundaries of the discussion that the group comes to the conclusion The Manager has already chosen, while believing they actually played a real role in setting the goal so they will fully buy into the plan. This is the very sort of leader that an emotivist society would have, and the only sort it could really recognize: one that claimed authority not on the basis of wisdom or justice, but only on effectiveness. The supposedly esoteric debate over the meaning of moral language, which was thought to be locked away in ivory towers where emotivist philosophers wrote and taught, actually is both the expression and cause of the moral vacuum underlying our society as a whole. The Enlightenment sought to found a fairly traditional morality (don’t lie, don’t kill etc.) on notions of human nature as such, rather than the teleological or theological foundations that had supported morality since the days of Socrates and Moses. That project failed, and MacIntyre argues that it was impossible from the start. We live now in the society born of that failure: a society with no foundation for moral thinking and no consensus what moral language even means, but continuing to use the terms of morality as rhetorical devices to manipulate others to follow the agendas set by the preferences of those with the strongest wills.

To be continued…

[1] Alasdair MacIntyer, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 27-32

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