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.’