After Anscombe: a closer look at MacIntyre

In this post I want to expand upon two previous posts on MacIntyre in order to clarify the sketchy accounts provided there — as much to try and get a handle on his project myself than anything else. In doing so, I will try to respond to some of Nate’s comments.

Elizabeth Anscombe’s seminal paper, ‘Modern Modern Philosophy’ (1958), was an important influence on MacIntyre’s strategy in After Virtue and his successive books and articles. As such, it might be helpful to consider it briefly. Anscombe defends three central theses, the second being the most relevant here:

the concepts of obligation, and duty — moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say — and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought’, ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.

To cut a long story short, it is outside of a law conception of ethics that Anscombe thinks that some emphatically moral ‘ought’ no longer makes sense. That is, insofar as moral considerations are conceived as fashioning us with distinctive obligations — ones that go beyond ‘oughts’ assimiliable to those whereby ‘you ought to oil the machine’ means that it is liable to break otherwise — then they must be tied to a legislative power that acts as an authoritative source of laws for us. But what could this authority be? For, in a nutshell, God is dead and self-legislation absurd. Yet, modern moral philosophy remains tied to emphatic moral concepts, the utilitarian and deontologist being wedded to a normative framework that prescribes moral obligations of a sort that would only be intelligible if there were legislative powers that, in fact, modern philosophers are either unwilling or unable to accept. (Anscombe’s position here is ambiguous given her Catholicism, though that is a story for another day.)

There is much that could be questioned in Anscombe’s account, but the most important aspect of her paper is, I think, its strategic vision. One of the ways this comes out is through its address to predominantly Anglo-American philosophers who had often made a virtue of sidelining the historical dimensions of philosophy — both its own history and history in general — it directed attention to the development of moral practices, highlighting the possibility of a degenerate moral culture. ‘Degenerate’ here in a literal sense, whereby it is suggested that once reasonably healthy moral practice — whether that of antique Greece which did not attempt to employ strong notions of moral obligation, or the medieval Christian tradition that did so with the necessary theological supplement to make this usage coherent — has become highly problematic because of a slowly lost grip on the presuppositions necessary to use its concepts for their original functions yet without reinventing those usages and functions in a way that does not remain equally disjointed and confused. As the story stands, through inertia old assumptions about morality’s connection to a divine lawgiver have been tacitly preserved although the rational ground for them, along with their easy fit with current everyday moral assumptions, is lacking.

After Virtue opens by confronting us with a similar possibility, asking us to consider whether contemporary moral culture might be best construed on analogy with something like the following: where a post-apocolyptic people who, rediscovering scientific artifacts — wrecked experimental equipment, algebraic formulas in old textbooks — were certain that these things had great signifcance but lacked the network of beliefs and behaviour that would enable them to qualify as engaging in science. As MacIntyre puts it:

all they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detatched from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces which they possess or to experiment; … half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless … [a]dults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the survivng portions of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretreviably.

The substantiation of this claim requires a lot of work of course. Very briefly, MacIntyre’s diagnosis of the impasses of modern morality centres on his claim that the tripartite schema of the Aristotelian moral tradition — untutored human nature, human nature as it could be if it achieved its telos, and the rational precepts required to transform the former into the latter — has been distorted through the influence of Protestantism and Jansenist Catholicism as well as tendencies encouraged by the rise of modern science. He blames these religious traditions for undermining confidence in the power of reason through their fixation on the lapsarian state of humanity, thus leading to the rejection of the claim that man’s telos can be rationally apprehended. The scientific assault on scholaticism is thought to have had a similar effect, mistakenly uprooting any traditions with Artistotelian essentialist suspicion hanging over them, no matter how nuanced and contextualised this human ‘essence’ is. He claims that these two assaults removed a crucial plank of moral reasoning, leading to an incoherent reformulation of the moral project in which Enlightenment philosophers tried to justify an inherited set of moral injunctions on the basis of features of the very human nature that these injunctions were meant to correct and thus be fundamentally discrepant with. For MacIntyre, although some modern philosophers have occasionally displayed a distant awareness of these problems, dimly and darkly as it were, they have continued with their impossible project that has contributed to shaping our misshapen modern moral practices.

With this backstory in place, it is possible to go on to respond to some of Nate’s comments. Firstly, I do not think MacIntyre’s strategy in After Virtue is intended to critique emotivism, whether by pointing to the functional role that it plays which favour some interests or otherwise, nor were my comments meant to demonstrate that emotivism is false. For the most part, I take it that MacIntyre thinks emotivism obviously wrong. The role it plays is somewhat different, and requires us to distinguish emotivism from emotivist selves. Emotivism simpliciter is a semantic thesis, that moral discourse is an expression of emotion without any further cognitive content (thus, it does not refer to moral entities or name solutions to practical problems, etc.). The notion of the emotivist self is a sociological one insofar as it marks a pattern of behaviour that is the implicit correlate of this semantic thesis. The best description of moral discourse would be emotivism if we were emotivist selves: ones who acted in such a way that although we might explicitly avow the coherence or robust objectivity of moral discourse, nonetheless our actions showed that we consistently acted as if morality were just an expression of fondness and disgust for certain things. (MacIntyre thinks all moral philosophies presuppose a sociology in this way.) MacIntyre believes that, for the most part, we do act in conformity with this sociological model, that to a large extent we have become emotivist selves. Thus, emotivism is not radically off the mark since it captures something important about contemporary moral discourse. Yet, he thinks it a mistake to take it as an analysis of moral discourse tout court — transhistorically, as it were. Rather, it is only appropriate as a descriptor of the de facto state of our current practice, that, along with Anscombe, he takes to fallen into confusion and disrepair. That emotivism has some plausibility is taken to be an indictment of the contemporary moral climate. MacIntyre’s project is to try to turn existing moral practice around, with help from resources from the classical tradition, such that emotivism loses what plausibility it may have had as a description of moral discourse that takes place within that practice.

Secondly, Nate wonders what is so bad about emotivism; why would it present a problem for critiques of capitalism, or the use of moral discourse in general for that matter? In short, the problem with emotivism is that it removes the normative bite from moral discourse. As Kant notes, the occurence of an emotion is not yet a reason — and both critique and moral deliberation are dependent on the rational force provided by reasons. But in itself emotivism does not even make it to the level of neo-Humean positions that try to base moral normativity on second-order desires: that we have a reason to do the ‘right thing’ because we desire to desire what is right. Under emotivist readings, reason is excluded from moral discourse — such discourse does not even qualify as truth-apt. Thus, we are left in the positon of a normative equivalent of the Dude from the Big Lebowski: ‘That’s just, like, your opinion, man.’

Emotivism and Capitalism Revisited: Discourse on Method

My last post, in which I posit some sort of relation between capitalism and MacIntyre’s ‘emotivist self’, was intended as little more than a placeholder for that indistinct thought. I am indebted to the ever-perceptive N Pepperell who, in the comments to it, correctly locates a certain methodological ambiguity in the analysis. This ambiguity is at the heart of at least one of the reasons why the post is rather unsatisfactory. For, as NP points out, on the one hand I engage in a ‘functionalist’ task, pointing to capital as a beneficiary of a certain emotivist form of subjectivity, while also identifying a more straightforward ‘structural’ homology between an emotivist form of subjectivity and the liberal-individualist form of subjectivity that capitalism ideologically posits and practically engenders. I want to take this opportunity to expand on these insightful comments–ones which I will draw on heavily in what follows.

It is a familiar trope of critical discourse to ask of the object of analysis whether–and if so, which–interests are served by that object. Thus, in my post, I ask of the formation of emotivist subjectivity what ends it helps achieve, suggesting that it reinforces a certain [quasi-]utilitarian logic that smoothes the operations of the social form of capitalism. We can consider this form of critique in more detail, examining the problems that it tends to get entangled in with respect to the legitimacy of the standpoint it presupposes as well as going on to point to some systematic blindspots it can encourage. These are distilled in the essence-appearance distinction it tempts us to adopt–at least, insofar as essence and appearance remain dichotomous here. The critique will often be articulated something like this: ‘Although x seems innocent, it is really exploitative/patriarchal/racist.’ This is a common sort of ideological unveiling whereby the theorist seeks to penetrate to the core of the object of analysis to reveal its essential workings as against its deceptive semblance.

Often problematic features of such analyses can be traced back to their reliance on certain–commonly tacit–assumptions with respect to a dualism of subject and object. These problems centre around the failure of the analysis to treat subject and object as items individuated within a unitary field (or ‘situation’) and thus leads to us seeing them as separated by a gulf that problematises their relation. This can occlude two important issues.

Firstly, under this dualist assumption, the critical theorist can become fixated on the attempt to uncover the object of analysis as it is in-itself. Their conception of their task thus becomes to determine whether their object really is as it appears to be–say, whether capitalist relations of production really are just, as it has seemed to many economists. This ‘functionalist’ model, which merely compares functional essence with appearance, is rather limited though. The deeper and often more interesting question is that given that sometimes there is a mismatch between essence and appearance–that something appears innocuous/pernicious when it is not–why does it take that specific appearance? For example, why has it (or alternatively, must it have) appeared to so many economists that capitalism is not exploitative but paradigmatic of just distribution? Ultimately we must ask how semblance can arise at all (for as Hegel recognised, it is this that is the real mystery!)? Fully answering these sorts of question, I believe, requires us to reject a dualistic opposition between subject and object, instead embracing a categorical framework that treats subjectivity as situated within and in some sense contiguous with the material world. This would provide a fuller set of resources for explaining the complex interplay between the subject and those material and intersubjective forces that shape its orientation towards the world.

The second issue relates to the situatedness of the critical theorist themself. For the functional analysis that reduces the object of critique to an essence (its functional role with respect to the interests of certain actors and systems) distinguished from mere appearance (those qualitative features subjects apprehend) we are left with a further question. That question is: given that the object does not make itself manifest immediately as it is, how does the theorist come to discover its essential nature? If the relation between subject and object is one in which the object appears to the subject as something other than it essentially is then it seems that the theorist must somehow stand outside the context of the subject-object relation–occupying some transcendent standpoint–if they are to discern the true function of the object (e.g. what interests it serves). Reformulated outside of the assumptions of a subject-object dualism, we can rehabilitate such a question in much more finessed terms, supplementing the crude essence-appearance model with an analysis of the whole field in which subject and object are situated within that explains how the critical methodology employed by the subject becomes available to them but not to others who remain misled. (Relevant here are Sinthome’s characteristically excellent discussions of ‘transcendental stupidity'; for the difficulties of successful normative appraisal of the object of critique are rarely ones of deductive errors or lack of empirical data.)

Returning now to the content of my previous post, the ‘functional’ question appears somewhat tangential to the more structural concerns which centred on emotivist and liberal-individualist forms of subjectivity. Worse, insofar as it encourages a crude essence-appearance dichotomy then it abstracts away from what NP calls the ‘qualitative form’ of these subjectivities, subsumtively reducing their features through analysis into mere instruments of the overriding function. Preferable to the functionalist strategy, suggests NP, is one that pursues the thought that: “something about the collective practice of capitalism involves, or renders more likely, or suggests the possibility, or similar, for the practice and concept of an emotivist self.” This was my central thought that was clouded by my clumsy articulation of the issue. One potential caveat is the possible implication that there is a uni-directional relation of influence: that it is merely capitalism that creates a suitable context for an emotivist subjectivity. Rather (assuming MacIntyre’s thesis holds, etc.) the two forms of subjectivity–liberal-individualism and emotivism–would seem to be interpenetrative, or at least mutually reinforcing.

The relation between the two forms of subjectivity could be hypothesised as follows. Capitalist social practice encourages an unreflective, instrumental and pleonexic mode of engagement with the world, constituting an enculturation that privileges certain forms of perception. This provides a climate amenable for the emotivist self which substantially shares these perceptual tendencies and forms. The form of emotivist subjectivity itself informs a practice of moral reasoning that also forges these forms of perception, which in turn nurtures the liberal-individual form of subjectivity that conceives the world according to real-abstract capitalist concepts. Thus, through a joint Bildung, the modern individual would acquire a second nature in which their instinctive mode of relating to the world becomes a dual emotivist-liberal one. Other modes of worldly engagement are by no means ruled out but rather marginalised. The combined ‘direction of flow’ of these two modes of engagement would, as it were, cut channels into the subjective landscape that create a path of least resistance that privileges and naturalises certain values and behaviours. Moral traditions with some sort of hard moral kernel would then come to seem alien–their critical norms as unwelcome impositions on the ‘obvious’ order of things.

amo, amas, emote

Consider Alisdair MacIntyre’s thesis, set out in the opening chapters to After Virtue, that modernity has nurtured an ‘emotivist self’. This self would be one that lacks the resources required to engage in collective moral reflection, its engagement with ‘moral debates’ effectively being a mere incantation of private predilections — a matter of asserting its brute, unquestionable ‘values’. The sort of argumentative impasses that MacIntyre is gesturing towards ought to be familiar ones. To give what I find to be a particularly infuriating example, think of rights-discourse in the media, such as when someone will assert criminal suspects’ rights to a robust and fair legal procedure and then is met by claims on behalf of the rights of victims of crime. There is still a tacit appeal to an impersonal standard for resolving the dispute here (i.e. the existence of certain rights) but nonetheless there is usually an insufficient framework for rational discussion, with appeals to conflicting principles whose only grounding seems to be derived from the conviction that their proponents invest in them. How often does a fruitful exchange occur in these circumstances, let alone a reasonably settled consensus? MacIntyre’s ultimate project is to try and rehabilitate a form of Aristotelianism (what, in fact, turns out to be a neo-Thomisim) that he thinks gives us resources to avoid moral arguments degenerating into such dead-ends, of being little more than appeals to nebulous intuitions; but I won’t go into that here.

Assuming that MacIntyre’s historical position is defensible, that as moderns we do find ourselves in the situation he describes, what has led us here? MacIntyre thinks that certain Enlightenment philosophical assumptions — even if not always, or even predominantly, bound up with academic philosophy — have distorted our conceptions of ourselves and our role as moral reasoners. I want to suggest another explanation of this phenomena (perhaps not even a conflicting one, per se) with reference to the wider structural effects of the cultivation in us of a moral self-conception in implicitly emotivist terms.

Asking a simple question, who or what benefits from such an emotivist self? One obvious answer: capital. At a superficial level, such a self — one that conceives of its moral identity simply in terms of a set of preferences, or is at least embedded in a system that treats it that way — has a similarity to liberal-democratic conceptions of the individual. This is ethics as consumer choice, as contiguous with any other desires or inclinations that we happen to have and to be maximised no differently. Our job is merely to be self-interested agents employing instrumental rationality to satisfy desires that are not intrinsically privileged; we just happen to care about moral preferences and that’s the only reason why we ought to pay any attention to morality.

Conceiving ourselves as moral agents in this merely emotivist way is congenial to the interests of capital in a number of ways. Not only does it buttress a liberal-democratic conception of personhood (liberalism being the handmaiden of capitalism, as we know), it weakens the foundations of practices that can act as sites of resistance to capital. Someone who treats their own moral dispositions as no more than emotional preferences, or else a social system that functionally reduces them to mere preferences, strips the moral realm of its distinctive importance. Moral considerations can then be bargained away, assigned a quantitive value alongside any other outcome that we find satisfying. What are arguably broadly morally centred traditions and institutions (Marxism, Christianity, etc.) lose their autonomy. That is, they become integrated with, and subsumed under, a utilitarian logic that can only acknowledge their importance insofar as they promote the fulfilment of existing desires — desires that are predominantly unquestionable, uncriticisable ones. The necessary standpoint for critique is squeezed out, and we are left with agents whose mercenary pursuit of their own interests could not come to be legitimately opposed. The result? Homo economicus reigns.